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South Korea property scandal hurts Moon ahead of key polls

Approval rating falls to new low weeks before Seoul and Busan mayor elections

Civic activists and local residents protest against alleged land speculation by employees of the state-run Korea Land and Housing Corp. The scandal is hurting support for South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his ruling party. (Source photos by Reuters and EPA/Yonhap/Jiji) 

SEOUL -- A property speculation scandal has sent South Korean President Moon Jae-in's approval rating crashing to its lowest level since he took office in 2017.

Support for the president fell to 34.1%, down 3.6 percentage points from a week earlier, Realmeter said on Monday. Moon's disapproval rating also jumped to a record high 62.2%.

Twenty employees of Korea Land and Housing Corp. (LH), a state housing developer, are suspected of buying land worth at least 10 billion won ($9 million) in Gwangmyeong and Siheung cities, both southwest of Seoul, before the announcement of development plans in those areas.

The government suspects the LH employees purchased the land using inside information, and Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun launched an investigation earlier this month. But the public remains angry about the issue.

Two senior LH officials took their own life ahead of the investigation; Land Minister Byeon Chang-heum, head of LH until December, has offered his resignation; and lawmakers in the ruling Democratic Party -- along with family members -- are also suspected of land speculation.

More than half of the suspected LH employees bought land in the two cities when Byeon was the head of the company.

Moon is also implicated after buying farm land near Busan last year for his planned retirement home. The president said he has taken all the required legal steps, but opposition lawmakers accuse him of lying that he had been farming there for 11 years to buy the land.

Tens of thousands of people responded angrily after the president posted a Facebook message on March 12 urging the public to stop raising an issue of land purchase.

"I understand that it is election season, but enough is enough," Moon said. "I bought this with my money, but I cannot sell it because it is connected to security facilities... I am taking every step legally."

Activists hold a vigil calling for drastic measures in response to land deals involving employees of the state-run Korea Land and Housing Corp.  outside its office in southern Seoul on March 15.   © EPA/Yonhap/Jiji

The scandal raises the question of whether the Moon administration is acting out of self interest, contradicting the liberal president's constant refrain of fairness and justice.

The timing is having an impact on voter intentions ahead of key mayoral elections in Seoul and South Korea's second city of Busan on April 7 -- both barometer votes ahead of the presidential election next March.

The Realmeter poll put the approval rating of Moon's DP, which won the midterm legislative election last April in a landslide, at a new low of 28.1%. Public support for the main conservative opposition People Power Party (PPP) rose 3.1 percentage points to 35.5% from last week

In Seoul, support for the DP dropped to 26.2%, while the PPP's share increased to 38.9%.

Polls also show that Park Young-sun, the DP's candidate for Seoul mayor, is losing support, while opposition front-runners such as Oh Se-hoon of the PPP and Ahn Cheol-soo of the People Party are gaining popularity.

In head-to-head polls, Oh garnered 54.5% against Park's 37.4%, while Ahn had 55.3% verses Park's 37.8%. Oh and Ahn are currently in talks on one of them becoming a "unified candidate" in the Seoul race.

Political analysts say that Moon risks becoming a lame duck in the final year of his single five-year term if his party loses the Seoul election.

"The LH scandal is hurting Moon's approval ratings badly because real estate is what everybody from people in their 20s to those in their 80s are interested in," said Park Sung-min, head of Min Consulting, a political consulting firm. "Nobody is happy with the government's real estate policy as house prices jumped so much. People who don't own homes are upset with the high housing prices, while homeowners complain of high real estate tax."

The government has tasked LH with developing new cities and supplying housing, mostly large-scale apartments. The corporation was founded in 2009 through a merger of two state companies in charge of land development and housing construction.

The scandal could also derail government plans to develop new cities near Seoul to boost housing supply. In a separate Realmeter poll, 57.9% of respondents said that the government should remove the regions from the new city development plans.

Other polls show that the public has lost trust in the government's real estate policy.

Some 74% of respondents evaluated Moon's real estate policy as negative in a Gallup Korea poll conducted on March 4 -- the highest figure since Moon came to power.

"In the past, people believed that real estate prices would stabilize after the government announced new policies," said Jung Ji-yeon, a director at Gallup Korea. "But such a trend changed since the second half of last year as people forecast that housing prices will continue to rise no matter what the government does."

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